Lavinia Goodell: Wisconsin's First Woman Lawyer

The first woman lawyer admitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court had to fight for that status, overcoming opposition from the most powerful legal figure in the state. Lavinia Goodell (1839-1880) was also one of the first female trial lawyers in the United States, a nationally-respected writer, a Vice President of the Association for the Advancement of Woman, a candidate for Janesville City Attorney, a successful lobbyist, a jail reformer, and a temperance advocate. Yet she is undeservedly obscure. Another woman’s likeness adorns her spot in books, on the web, and at the Rock County Courthouse. Lavinia Goodell: The Private Life and Public Trials of Wisconsin’s First Woman Lawyer aims to secure her rightful place in history.

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Lavinia Goodell, November 21, 1869 In 1869, in an effort to improve her German language skills, Lavinia Goodell moved from her aunt and uncle’s home in Brooklyn into an upper room of a home on East 23rd Street in Manhattan owned by a German doctor. For a time she had a roommate who was a medical student at the Woman’s Medical College and Infirmary, an institution recently opened by sisters Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell. Lavinia found Nancie Monelle very companionable, although they had divergent interests. Lavinia wrote to her sister: My new chum is quite a character. She is short,…
History is a story with many voices that we tell together. The Wisconsin Historical Society was founded in 1846, two years before Wisconsin became a state. Lavinia Goodell, who in 1874 would go on to become Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer,  was then a seven year old girl living in New York state. In 2021, theContinue reading → The post History is a story with many voices that we tell together appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“Judge Conger will stand by me.” Lavinia Goodell, December 20, 1875 When Lavinia Goodell became the first Wisconsin woman admitted to practice law in June of 1874, she could credit her accomplishment on her studiousness and tenacity, but if Circuit Judge Harmon S. Conger had refused to allow her to take the examination given toContinue reading → The post “Judge Conger will stand by me.” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
That easily could have been the headline of the June 2, 1877, Janesville Gazette. Max St. Bar was an inmate at the Rock County Jail and one of many students in Lavinia’s jail school. She immediately noticed his intelligence and elocution. In her relentless effort to prove that prisoners often have good qualities and are worthy of mentoring, Lavinia persuaded the sheriff to release St. Bar for a bit so that he could recite poetry to her Mutual Improvement Club. Lavinia’s article about Max St. Bar Professor Jenk L. Jones, pastor of the Unitarian Church, and his wife launched the…
“Went to Milwaukee to try Dr. Hanson’s Turkish baths.” Lavinia Goodell, January 21, 1880 In mid-January of 1880, ten weeks before her death from ovarian cancer, Lavinia Goodell travelled to Milwaukee to seek treatment at a Turkish bath establishment. The Milwaukee Thermo Therapea was located at 415 Sycamore Street, a few blocks west of theContinue reading → The post “Went to Milwaukee to try Dr. Hanson’s Turkish baths.” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“Mrs. Beale is very neighborly. Comes in nearly every day.” Lavinia Goodell, June 27, 1873 Lavinia Goodell’s best friend and closest confidant during her years in Janesville, Wisconsin was Mrs. D.A. (Dorcas Amanda) Beale. Lavinia’s diaries for the years 1873 through 1879 mention Mrs. Beale 392 times. Mrs. Beale was born in Maine in eitherContinue reading → The post “Mrs. Beale is very neighborly. Comes in nearly every day.” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“Dear old Beecher! There’s nobody like him!” Lavinia Goodell, August 30, 1874 Henry Ward Beecher was one of the most famous men of the nineteenth century. Born in Connecticut in 1813, he was a Congregationalist preacher, a staunch abolitionist, and a supporter of women’s suffrage and temperance. In the early days of the Civil War,Continue reading → The post “Dear old Beecher! There’s nobody like him!” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“Suppose I could become Mrs. ‘M.D.’ if I chose. Don’t choose.” Lavinia Goodell, January 11, 1868 In the fall of 1867, Lavinia Goodell began a new job at the newly minted Harper’s Bazar magazine. (Read more about her experiences here and here.) She was living in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn with Aunt Mira andContinue reading → The post “Suppose I could become Mrs. ‘M.D.’ if I chose. Don’t choose.” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“Mrs. Bascom and her husband sympathized warmly with my effort to be admitted.” Lavinia Goodell, December 20, 1875 Throughout her life, Lavinia Goodell cultivated a network of prominent people who championed her efforts to be admitted to the Wisconsin bar and supported, at least to some degree, her other varied causes, such as temperance andContinue reading → The post “Mrs. Bascom and her husband sympathized warmly with my effort to be admitted.” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“Dr. Clara Normington has concluded to enter upon the practice of medicine in this city.” Janesville Gazette, March 25, 1878 Janesville, Wisconsin in the late 1870s not only had three women lawyers (Lavinia Goodell, Kate Kane,  and Angie King), it also had a woman physician. According to the 1880 census, Dr. Clara Normington was bornContinue reading → The post “Dr. Clara Normington has concluded to enter upon the practice of medicine in this city.” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“I have been up to the Central Park. It is a beautiful place.” Lavinia Goodell, July 30, 1863 When warm sunny days arrive, people enjoy visiting their local parks. Lavinia Goodell was no different. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Lavinia, who was living in Brooklyn, visited New York’s Central Park forContinue reading → The post “I have been up to the Central Park. It is a beautiful place.” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“I have seen Niagara!” Lavinia Goodell, September 20, 1861 Although people tend to think of Lavinia Goodell as a very serious woman who devoted her life to working to advance causes such as women’s rights, temperance, and prison reform, she also had a much lighter side that is not well known. Lavinia had a delightfulContinue reading → The post “I have seen Niagara!” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“My only regret was that we didn’t take her there sooner.” Lavinia Goodell, June 19, 1878 In early July 1877, Lavinia Goodell committed her mother to the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane. The institution, now known as Mendota Mental Health Institute, is located on Lake Mendota, on the north side of Madison. Lavinia’s JulyContinue reading → The post “My only regret was that we didn’t take her there sooner.” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“The boys tried to break out last night!” Lavinia Goodell, November 6, 1877 In the late 1870s, Lavinia Goodell was a frequent visitor to the Rock County jail, which was located on the Rock River, down the hill from the courthouse. After Judge Conger appointed her to represent a number of criminal defendants, Lavinia cameContinue reading → The post “The boys tried to break out last night!” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“A dreadful time with Mother” Lavinia Goodell, January 18, 1877 Lavinia Goodell’s mother’s mental health steadily declined during 1876. Lavinia’s cousin, Sarah Thomas, travelled to Janesville in late December to help Lavinia care for Clarissa. Sarah had no sooner arrived than Clarissa’s condition worsened. Lavinia’s diary entries for January 1877 were a litany of depressingContinue reading → The post “A dreadful time with Mother” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…
“Mother gets worse and worse” Lavinia Goodell, November 4, 1876 Lavinia Goodell was away from Janesville for much of the summer of 1876. She left on June 3 and didn’t return until August 4. She was a delegate and speaker at the International Temperance Conference in Philadelphia and she and her cousin, Sarah Thomas, attendedContinue reading → The post “Mother gets worse and worse” appeared first on Lavinia Goodell.…